During our webinar this week, one of our listeners sent this question: “We want to start hosting voluntary, off-site happy hours.  What are the legal implications?  We need a drink!”  We hear you!

The past 18 months or so have been trying for most of us.  We want to “get the band back together,” and plan some social events, like happy hours or group yoga classes.  Of course, these events can encourage camaraderie and teamwork, and many employees love them. Is there a liability risk, though?  Sure.  Someone who becomes injured or ill because of the event may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, even if they sign an acknowledgement that the activity is “voluntary.”  (That said, requiring such an acknowledgement for employer-sponsored recreational activities, for instance, is always a good idea, and may preclude a claim if participation truly was “voluntary.”)  Your EEO policies will apply, too.  (Remember, it’s not where you are, but who you are with!).  And, if a non-exempt employee feels compelled to attend, they may be entitled to be paid for the time.  Seriously.

How can you avoid these issues?  Well, you cannot eliminate risk altogether.  But, these tips will help:

  • Make clear that the event truly is voluntary.  Management must be careful not to pressure employees to attend, or turn it into a work event by making an important announcement at the festivities.
  • If drinking is involved, provide rides to take employees home if necessary, and ensure that at least one leader and/or HR person at the event is not drinking.
  • Ensure everyone understands the rules that apply when they are with co-workers outside of work.  Many employees still believe that if they aren’t actually “working,” then the employer’s policies don’t matter.  That’s not the case, of course.  I don’t want to tell you how many of our litigation matters involved holiday parties and the like.
  • If you are planning a physical event, like hiking, a team “tough mudder” race, etc., require all participants to sign an acknowledgement and liability waiver.  (These documents are not “one-size-fits-all,” so work with your counsel.)
  • Don’t forget about COVID-19 compliance.  (That may mean requiring vaccinations or testing before participation).

Keeping employees happy and connected is a key part of a solid retention strategy.  So go out there and have fun (safely, of course!).

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